J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

A “Romantic” Mansion in Roxbury

In 1874, Emily Pierpont Delesdernier (1840-1915) published Fannie St. John: A Romantic Incident of the American Revolution. Though inspired by family lore, that book was fiction.

Delesdernier described an old Roxbury mansion, built in 1723 by Francis Brinley and bought just before the Revolution by her great-grandfather Robert Pierpont, like this:

It was situated in the midst of a large domain of park and wooded hills, and presented a picture of grandeur and stateliness not common in the New World. There were colonnades, and a vestibule whose massive mahogany doors, studded with silver, opened into a wide hall, where tessellated floors sparkled under the light of a lofty dome of richly painted glass. Underneath the dome two cherubs carved in wood extended their wings, and so formed the centre, from which an immense chandelier of cut glass depended. Upon the floor beneath the dome there stood a marble column, and around it ran a divan formed of cushions covered with satin of Damascus of gorgeous coloring. Large mirrors with ebony frames filled the spaces between the grand staircases, at either side of the hall of entrance. All the paneling and woodwork consisted of elaborate carving done abroad, and made to fit every part of the mansion where such ornamentation was required. Exquisite combinations of painted birds and fruits and flowers abounded everywhere, in rich contrast with the delicate blue tint that prevailed upon the lofty walls.

The state rooms were covered with Persian carpets, and hung with tapestries of gold and silver, arranged after some graceful artistic foreign fashion.

The traditions of the princely grandeur of the ancient home have often been recalled at family reunions, but the old place has suffered many changes at the hands of its various owners, who, in attempting modernizing, have destroyed almost every vestige of former magnificence.
When Gen. George Washington arrived in Cambridge, Gen. Artemas Ward took command of the American army’s southern wing, and used this house as his headquarters. Later, in 1809, Gen. Henry Dearborn, who had started his military career as a young officer from New Hampshire in the siege of Boston, moved into the mansion.

By the mid-1800s, the building had been modified almost beyond recognition. Soon after the publication of Fannie St. John, a fire damaged the eastern portion. By then a Catholic order, the Redemptorist Fathers, owned the property and was building a cathedral nearby.

Delesdernier’s novel provided the only detailed description of the building as it had appeared in the Revolution—even though she hadn’t been alive then, and her description was highly romanticized and fairly Victorian. Several local historians quoted the passage from Fannie St. John, and reprinted the nineteenth-century engraving of the house shown above. Francis S. Drake’s history of Roxbury cited Delesdernier’s “somewhat fanciful description” and added with Yankee hospitality:
This once charming locality has completely lost its identity, and the region from the Parker Hill quarries to “Grab Village” is now largely occupied by natives of the Emerald Isle and their numerous progeny.
In The Glories of Mary in Boston: A Memorial History of the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (1921), the Rev. John F. Byrne quoted the passage and added:
Some of our readers, we presume, will consider the foregoing description overdone, but the lady who wrote it, stoutly maintains its truth and adds that “traditions of the princely grandeur of the ancient home have often been recalled at family reunions.” Moreover, several old residents of Roxbury who were in a position to know, have assured the writer that even in their childhood days the house was famous for its magnificent mirrors.
Of course, those mirrors could have arrived well after the Revolution.

Most recently, the description surfaces in Thomas B. Allen’s Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War, a lively history of Loyalists’ experiences. However, through a mix-up of generals’ headquarters, that book presents it as a description of the John Vassall mansion in Cambridge, where Gen. Washington lived starting in late July 1775.

Washington did visit the old Brinley mansion when it was Ward’s headquarters. He presided over councils of war there in November 1775 and again in March 1776, as the Americans were on the verge of victory. So it was the site of historic events, whether or not it was romantic.


Charles Bahne said...

Any idea of where this house once stood, with reference to current streets and landmarks?

J. L. Bell said...

The Redemptorist order built what is now the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, better known as “the Mission Church,” on the Brinley estate. In the 1870s a “fragment” of the old mansion house was still standing alongside that cathedral, but I don’t know in which direction.

Charles Bahne said...

I found a 1775 map of Roxbury on the Library of Congress website that shows "Colo. Brindley's" along what is now Tremont Street:


Drake's "The Town of Roxbury", which you cite, is available on Google Books. It says (pp. 326-7) that the house was after the Mission Church, as you are heading towards the present Brigham Circle.

I believe that Robert Pierpont, who bought the house from Brinley, may have been a maternal ancestor of J. Pierpont Morgan.

J. L. Bell said...

I couldn’t tell from Drake’s Roxbury which direction you should be traveling in when the remains of the mansion came after the new cathedral.

Robert Pierpont (or Pierpoint) is an interesting figure in Revolutionary Boston. He was the instigator of a protest that led to a riot against British troops in 1769, and a coroner at the time of the Boston Massacre the next year. In 1775 the army guard at the Neck discovered a wagon hauling, as I recall, 13,000 rounds of ammunition to him at his new Roxbury house. He went to Gen. Gage and insisted that he should be allowed to have those cartridges because they were for his private use.